An important turning-point in my writing of antagonists

Probably sometime in the spring of ’98, towards the end of the Civil War unit in my American History class, our teacher announced we were going to have a mock funeral for Pres. Lincoln. She was going to pass around a bowl or hat with slips of paper, and we’d have to deliver a speech from the POV of whomever we drew.

I sat on the front left-hand side of the room, near the door, so I drew first. Of all the names in that container to draw from, I ended up with the one name probably no one wants to draw.

Who wants to play the assassin? Particularly when that person assassinated one of the most venerated people in American history?

I was loath to give my name up when the teacher was asking us who drew whom. When it finally came out that I’d drawn Booth, the teacher’s body language and involuntary little noise made her own reaction obvious.

In short, she knew what kinds of interests I had, my writing style, how advanced I was in my study of history, and how I wasn’t exactly a typical teen.

Don’t ask how obsessed I used to be with Pres. Lincoln and his sons Willie and Tad. He’s still one of my favoritest presidents and people in American history, though I don’t think he was a demigod who did no wrong ever.

Then I began researching my eulogy, written in Booth’s POV. While I didn’t start seeing him as an unfairly vilified hero, I did gain a deeper understanding of his motivations, background, and beliefs. I even used some language I’d never use myself, like an anti-Polish epithet, in the interest of authentically capturing his voice and the types of things he honestly would’ve said.

The day of the mock funeral, I dressed in my father’s old wedding suit, and may have worn a man’s hat as well. It’s so fun wearing men’s suits. Someday I hope to have a men’s-style suit tailored for a woman’s body. There are a few companies specializing in such clothes.

One of the reasons I love Halloween and Purim so much is because, when you really think about it, all clothing, makeup, and accessories are essentially drag, a costume, an identity you choose to put on to the world. It’s fun to play with an alternate identity a few times a year.

I really, really got into my portrayal of Booth. I had to resist the urge to start interacting with other people in character, or to say something like, “If anyone moves, Mary Todd gets it!”

The teacher said I made a really strong case for Booth. I imagine she may have been surprised I got so into character, both in the written and oral speech. So many other people would’ve taken the easy way out by casting him as a one-dimensionally evil villain who acted out of a vacuum.

This carried through into the way I write my antagonists, like Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, Mr. Seward, Misha Godunov, Anastasiya Voroshilova, and Mrs. Troy. All these characters truly believe they’re in the right, and started down that path for a reason. The sympathetic characters are the ones who seem misguided to them.

Even minor or secondary antagonists or villains I’ve created aren’t one-dimensionally evil and cartoonish. They have distinguishing features, and are written like real people.

Antagonists like Urma Smart or Mrs. Green, whose entire purpose is to be antagonistic and unsympathetic, exist to make people’s lives very, very miserable. But there’s still a general concept of the background and motivations which led them to those paths. They also bring a lot of great dark comedy.

Antagonists are fun to write! When the first book you ever read, at three years old, is the adult, uncensored edition of Grimms’ Fairytales, you know early on real life isn’t flowers, puppies, rainbows, and glitter.

As much as I enjoy well-deserved happy endings, I’m naturally drawn to the dark, macabre side of writing.

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The General at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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The General was based upon a true story, William Pittenger’s 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. Though Mr. Pittenger (one of the first Medal of Honor recipients) was a Union, not Confederate, soldier, the source material concerned a military raid in the South. It began 12 April 1862, when Union Army volunteers hijacked a train and drove it to Chattanooga. Along the way, they severely damaged the Western & Atlantic Railroad line.

Since the Union forces had cut telegraph wires, it was impossible to send warnings. However, the Confederates eventually captured them. Some were executed as spies, while others escaped. The U.S. Congress gave the Medal of Honor to some of the raiders, though they couldn’t award leader James J. Andrews, since he was a civilian and not in the military.

Obviously, I understand some Southerners wouldn’t consider these guys heroes!

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Though the book was written from the Northern POV, Buster didn’t think the audience would accept Confederates as villains, and switched the story’s perspective. The trend in that era to portray the South as underdogs, heroes, victims, etc., may have been due to retrospective romanticizing of “the lost cause,” even among writers and filmmakers who weren’t Southern themselves.

I’m a Northerner myself, but I don’t have any problem with the other side being portrayed sympathetically, just as I don’t have any problem with a positive portrayal of, e.g., a normal family in Nazi Germany. It can be done well, so long as there’s no historical revisionism or sugarcoating of negative aspects of history. We’re all humans, even if some humans have ended up on the losing side of wars.

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Buster filmed in Central Oregon, where there were old-fashioned railroads perfect for the treatment. He’d tried to rent the real-life General, but his request was denied. The owners didn’t want it used in a comedy. In its place, however, Buster bought two vintage Civil War trains from the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railway, and bought a third train in Eugene, Oregon, to depict The Texas.

Producer Joseph Schenk (Buster’s brother-in-law at the time) allotted a $400,000 budget. Buster worked on the script for weeks, and grew his hair long for an authentic period feel. When the cast and crew arrived in Oregon, they had 18 freight cars full of Civil War-era stagecoaches, cannons, passenger cars, wagons, houses, and laborers. Regular train service ceased during filming, and 1,500 locals were hired as extras.

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Film production being what it is, the budget began ballooning. Buster built real dams to change the depth of rivers, and also built bridges. There were also a number of on-set accidents adding to the swelling budget, among them Buster (who did all his own stunts) being knocked unconscious.

Other accidents included fires from the train’s engine spreading to farmers’ haystacks (costing $25 per stack) and forests; a train wheel running over a brakeman’s foot and resulting in a $2,900 lawsuit; and an assistant director getting shot in the face with a black cartridge.

It was reported that the budget had grown to between $500,000 and a million dollars. Schenk was quite upset at Buster for spending so much money.

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Between three to four thousand residents of the town of Cottage Grove turned out to watch the climactic train wreck scene, which cost $42,000 and is said to be the most expensive single shot in the history of silent cinema. Among the locals in attendance were 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. Shooting began four hours late, used six cameras, and required several long runs.

The wreckage was left in the river, and was a minor tourist attraction until 1944–45, when it was salvaged for scrap metal for the war effort.

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Buster and his company were forced to return to Los Angeles on 6 August 1926, due to excessive smoke left in the air after yet another fire, which broke out during a fight scene. This fire cost $50,000. In late August, heavy rains cleared the air, and they returned.

Finally, on 18 September, shooting wrapped. Buster had accrued 200,000 feet of film, and planned a late December release after the long editing process.

The General at 90, Part I (General overview)

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Perhaps Buster Keaton’s best-known film, The General had its grand première 31 December 1926 in Tokyo, and its U.S. première 15 January 1927 in Portland. The London première was 17 January, and there was a double-première in Chicago and Kansas City on 22 January. Finally, on 5 February, the film made it to NYC.

This tends to be one of those silents most people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the lost artform have seen. It’s also routinely voted as Buster’s best film, though I personally prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), Spite Marriage (1929), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924).

This might be an unpopular opinion, but sometimes it feels like people name such-and-such one of the greatest only because they’ve heard it praised so many times, and aren’t thinking for themselves. I like the film and think it’s one of Buster’s strongest pieces from the silent era, but wouldn’t name it as his greatest or funniest ever. Then again, I’ve always been rather oppositional-defiant!

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Johnnie Gray (Buster) is an engineer for Western & Atlantic Railroad in Marietta, Georgia. He has two loves in his life, his sweetheart Annabelle Lee and his train The General. When the Civil War erupts, he rushes to enlist, but is rejected because his civilian job is too important.

Johnnie isn’t deterred, and tries to sneak in again to enlist. However, he’s caught, and sent home in shame. He bumps into Annabelle’s father and brother, and when he refuses to get in line with them, they think he’s a draft-dodger. When Annabelle finds this out, she declares she won’t speak to him again till he’s in uniform.

This really says a lot about the culture of the time, and how many people thought of war as a grand, glorious, romantic adventure. While I believe the Civil War was more than morally justified, being in battle in any war isn’t a fun, awesome experience. It’s a terrifying matter of life and death. Wilfred Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” always comes to mind.

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Some time later, Annabelle receives word her father has been wounded, and hops on The General to see him. During a stop en route, Union spies steal the train and inadvertently kidnap Annabelle. Johnnie doesn’t waste a moment in pursuing them, though it’s kind of hard to give chase without a train.

When he reaches Chattanooga, he tells some soldiers what’s happened, and gets on The Texas on hot pursuit. Sadly, since the locomotive isn’t hooked up to the rest of the train, the soldiers are left behind. Johnnie doesn’t realize this until it’s too late.

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The Union spies at first believe Johnnie is accompanied by Confederate soldiers, and try all sorts of things to get him off their tail. When Johnnie realizes he’s thick in enemy territory, and the spies in turn realize Johnnie is alone, Johnnie runs into the forest to hide.

Under cover of night, Johnnie sneaks into a house for food, and hides under a table when he sees Union soldiers approaching. First he overhears their plans for a sneak attack, and then he sees them bringing Annabelle in. Johnnie seizes the chance to rescue her. In the morning, Johnnie devises a plan to take back The General and warn the Confederate Army about the planned attack. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

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Though I personally feel this film is a tad bit overrated, you can’t really go wrong with any of Buster’s silents. His MGM talkies are another matter, though that was due largely to being a victim of circumstance, not because he couldn’t make the transition to sound well. Buster had an awesome voice, and had so many great ideas, but the studio system wasn’t good for him. Louis B. Mayer also hated comedians. At least Buster was able to make a comeback later in life.